This week marks an ominous anniversary: fifteen years since the American invasion of Iraq. While that’s had some coverage, you might easily have missed last week the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre, one of the defining events of the Vietnam War. See for example this piece from the Los Angeles Times, which focuses on the heroism of Hugh Thompson.
It made me go back and look for the obituary I wrote when Thompson died twelve years ago. For some unknown reason it’s disappeared from the Crikey website (it should be in between these two pages), so I’m republishing it below.
For more on the story, you can read the Times’s 2016 obituary for his door gunner, Larry Colburn. At the time I commented on Facebook: “A true American hero. We may not see his like again. And if you understand the sort of people who sent him hate mail for it, you’ll understand a lot about the world.”
Hugh Thompson RIP
[11 January 2006]
Charles Richardson writes:
It seems to have received no coverage in the Australian media, but the death on Saturday of Hugh Thompson, in a Virginia hospital at the age of 62, should not be allowed to pass without comment.
Hugh Thompson was the hero of the My Lai massacre. In March 1968 he was an American helicopter pilot in Vietnam, when he observed US troops systematically killing unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai. He landed, intervened, and succeeded in stopping the massacre and evacuating some of the wounded, although not before hundreds had been killed.
At Thompson’s direction, his crew trained their guns on the American officers to prevent further killing. Later he testified at the trial of Lt William Calley, who was convicted of murder for his role in the massacre, although he was released after only a few years. My Lai came to symbolise the evils of the American involvement in Vietnam, and no doubt played a major role in the decline in public support for the war.
For this heroism, Thompson was treated as an outcast by the military, and received death threats after his return to the US. Only in 1998, 30 years later, did he receive appropriate recognition with the award of the Soldier’s Medal, the highest available award, by President Clinton.
For more about Thompson, read his obituary in The New York Times and this longer report from AP. At a time when our leaders assure us that the military can do no wrong, we need the example of people like Hugh Thompson more than ever.
And a note for Cold War ideologues: yes, I know that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese committed worse atrocities. But I don’t believe in moral equivalence. It’s not a surprise when communists massacre people, but those who are supposed to be on our side should be held to higher standards.